Why you Are Not Taking your Paid Vacation Days, but Should

Previous generations of workers fought their butts off for paid vacation leave. Some succeeded in getting this essential employee benefit from their employers. Others did not.

As a matter of fact, to this very day, the U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world with no mandatory minimum requirement for paid vacation for employees (the standard is now 20+).

This depressing chart gets more specific (look to the far right where there is a “0” in place of blue bars):

vacation days by country

Pretty sad, given that this country has the largest economic output in the world and can afford a day off or two. Emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China have minimum standards for time off. Hell, even Iran, South Korea, Namibia, and Mexico are ahead of us in this work/life balance metric.

And remember, we’re also one of the few countries with no paid sick leave.

So that is why it is so disappointing to see that 77% of U.S. workers get paid vacation, yet only 51% of paid vacation days are used! More disturbingly (if not surprisingly), 61% of those who do take vacation are working while on vacation. Why do we do this to ourselves? Survey says:

  • 33%: Afraid no one else at my company can do the work
  • 28%: Fear of getting behind
  • 22%: Complete dedication to company
  • 19%: Want a promotion
  • 19%: Feel like they can’t be disconnected
  • 18%: Want a pay raise
  • 17%: Afraid of not meeting goals
  • 17%: Fear of losing job
  • 16%: Believe working is better than not working
  • 13%: Want to outperform colleagues
  • 6%: Afraid of the boss

Only 3 of those 11 reasons are not based in fear. And even the three that aren’t (“complete dedication to company”, “want a promotion”, “want a pay raise”) probably have a deeper root cause that is based in fear (i.e. fear of not having enough money, status perception, or fear of getting fired).

A very very select few employers allow you to accrue unlimited vacation days that you can cash out when you retire (my father was one – retiring with around 2 years of paid vacation days when he retired after his entire career with one employer). Even with this rare benefit, there is a valid case for taking at least a healthy majority of allotted days before banking the remainder.

However, most of us will never realize that rare benefit. And to not use paid vacation days when you lose them and it is a defined benefit of your employment is sad. And it’s particularly sad when only 49% of low-wage workers (those in the bottom fourth of earners) are “lucky” enough to get paid vacation. How thankful and appreciative would they be if you were somehow able to transfer one of your unused vacation days to them?

Look, I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve bumped up against my maximum vacation accrual a number of times in the last 10+ years and lost days because I felt like I couldn’t or shouldn’t take them. It didn’t used to be that way for me. When I got my first job with paid vacation days, I savored every one of them. Then I bought in to the various fearful excuses to not take them. I’ve used every one of them. But, they are just garbage floating around in your head, driven by irrational fear. I’ve recently come full circle on this and vow to never deprive myself from another vacation day. None of the excuses are legit. Or at least legit enough to deprive you and your family of needed time off.

We Americans are overworked. Possibly the most overworked, overstressed group of citizens on the planet. To not take vacation is clearly not good for our health. Outside of competitive reasons, your paid vacation allotment is there for a reason – we all need time to unplug, unwind, and recharge in order to be the most effective people we can be at home AND at work. We need to live, breath, and connect with real live human beings (and nature) outside of the paid characters we must associate with at work. If your specific boss or employer does not appreciate that, then quite frankly, screw them. You are better off with one who does. And if you don’t appreciate it, there’s no better time to start than RIGHT NOW.

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